Singing klezmer and dancing a pro-flotilla jig

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Lois Pearlman

So earlier this year I was sitting in the offices of the Sonoma County JCC, wondering what a nice Jewish supporter of Palestine, like me, was doing in a place like that.

It’s true I have as much claim to my Judaism as anybody else. I attended Hebrew school at Temple Menorah in Miami Beach, had my bat mitzvah, and went to Camp Young Judea where I experienced my first French kiss. I am a dues-paying member of the Russian River Jewish Community in west Sonoma County, and I bake challah.

But I don’t subscribe to blind support of Israel just because I’m Jewish, and I keep a low profile when I want to work with those who do.

I was at the JCC that day to help with publicity for a KlezCalifornia event that was part the JCC’s annual Simcha Sunday in Santa Rosa. I love to sing Yiddish music, but helping with the event was a stretch for me that month because I also was directing the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie” for my Palestine support group.

How can I be Jewish, sing Yiddish and support Palestine, you may wonder. Here’s how. I grew up in a family that embraced its Jewish heritage but also maintained a healthy skepticism toward this new “Jewish state.”

I have some friends who were not that lucky. They believe in freedom for all, but they were brought up in Zionist homes and they struggle with the dichotomy. They wonder, “How can I be a good Jew and also recognize that the Israeli government is behaving poorly in Palestine?”

I say, “How can I be a good Jew and not question the unethical actions of a country that was allegedly created on my behalf?”

Fortunately, I am not alone. I have many Jewish sisters and brothers who share my desire to bring peace and justice everybody in Palestine and Israel.

Which brings me to the second Gaza flotilla. Did you know that there were Jews on those boats? I was able to speak with some of them and here’s what they had to say.

Hedy Epstein is a German Jew who escaped on the Kindertransport to England in 1939 when she was 14. Her parents and the rest of her family perished in Auschwitz, but not before they were able to instill young Hedy with a passion for openness toward all of humankind.

“We lived in a little German village,” she said in a July 7 telephone interview from her home in St. Louis, shortly after returning from Greece. “The Jewish community there was very exclusive, but my parents were not like that.”

After the war Hedy moved to the United States, married, raised a family and worked as an advocate for people facing housing and employment discrimination. For her, advocating for the rights of Palestinians was a natural next step.

She has been to the West Bank five times. Since 2008 she has been attempting to reach Gaza by sea. This month, on the U.S.-flagged ship Audacity of Hope, she got nine nautical miles closer to her goal before the Greek navy boarded the boat and sent it back to port.

Berkeley resident Henry Norr grew up, like me, in a family that attended  a Conservative Jewish synagogue (Conservative was liberal back in the 1950s). In a telephone interview last week, shortly after he returned from Greece, he told me he went to Israel in 1961 but “didn’t much care for it.” Like many of his generation, he became a peace activist during that decade and “was always uneasy about Israel.”

In 2002, Henry and his wife had tickets for a long-awaited vacation in Greece when they read about the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine and decided to go to there instead. He said they were nervous about going because of all the propaganda they had heard about terrorists and anti-Semitism, but they found the people in Gaza to be “warm, welcoming and normal.”

“It was a life-changing experience,” he told me.

That’s how he ended up in Athens two weeks ago, hoping to sail back to Gaza with the flotilla. But pressure from the United States and Israel kept the boats in Greece and the resulting news coverage brought worldwide attention to the issue.

Now is the time for people of good will to take a closer look at the Israeli occupation of Palestine — the land and resource grabs, the illegal settlements, the wall, the checkpoints, the imprisonment of thousands of Palestinian men, women and children and the military invasions.

Peace activists in Israeli have been saying for years that if you love Israel, you have to recognize the rights of the Palestinian people. It’s a no-brainer, and it’s the Jewish thing to do.

Lois Pearlman is a writer, actor and singer who lives in Guerneville. She is a member of the Russian River Jewish Community, Northcoast Coalition for Palestine Support, Jewish Voice for Peace and KlezCalifornia.